Fourth of July fireworks. A warm summer night. People young and old standing outside, staring at an ink-black sky, oohing and ahhing over an extravagance of color and motion. Could anything be wrong with this picture?
I never would have thought so, until I attended a talk by scholar and activist Greta Gaard. At the recent annual conference of the Institute for Critical Animal Studies (ICAS), Gaard gave a captivating and informative presentation that got me rethinking my view of fireworks as innocent entertainment. I've investigated this issue further, and here's what I found:
There is a 500% increase in animal injuries during a fireworks display. Most of us are familiar with the way dogs are frightened by the sound of fireworks, but we don’t usually look into the problem too deeply. When we do, we find that dogs’ sensitive ears are hurt by fireworks’ loud, percussive noises, and that what they experience is not merely fright but actually terror. Many panicked dogs will claw to the point of bloodying their paws, to try to escape from the horror and pain of fireworks explosions. See this story about how fireworks resulted in bloodied and traumatized dogs at an animal shelter in the U.K.
Fireworks cause many pets to run away, become lost, and even die. Terrified dogs and cats may take extreme measures in an attempt to escape the bombardment of fireworks. For example, dogs are known to break their leashes and smash through windows during fireworks, causing serious injuries to themselves. These frightened animals can run into roads and be hit by vehicles and killed. Others become lost and are never reunited with their family. Many animal shelters, such as ones in South Carolina last year, report being “overflowing” with runaway pets after fireworks displays.
Fireworks harm wild animals too. Research shows that the deafening blasts from fireworks cause panic, confusion, and fear in wild animals. Their fear causes them to run into roadways, resulting in injury and often death. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has documented fireworks causing birds to abandon their nests, often permanently separating parents from their young, who then end up dying from starvation. Another study from the University of Guelph, Ontario, showed that birds disoriented by fireworks will fly into buildings or too far out to sea.
Fireworks are hazardous to the environmental and human health. Fireworks pollute both the air and the water. One of the main components of fireworks is perchlorate, considered a “likely human carcinogen” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Following fireworks displays, nearby bodies of water become fouled with numerous toxic substances, including heavy metals such as lead and barium. Studies show that these substances linger in the water, and that it can take as many as 20 to 80 days for the water to return to pre-fireworks levels. Fireworks in the air also release minute metallic particles, which are small enough to be inhaled deeply into the lungs. A study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials found that the smoke emitted by fireworks poses a health risk, particularly to people suffering from asthma as well as children.
Fireworks are manufactured by child labor. Child labor is recognized as a serious problem in the world, but most of us never associate that labor with fireworks. However, in countries such as the Philippines, India, and Guatemala, children are the ones producing fireworks, handling toxic substances and sometimes dying from explosions at dangerous, unregulated factories.
As someone who cares deeply about the well-being of humans and other animals, as well as the environment we all share, I've now come to see fireworks as a tradition that needs serious reevaluation. A few minutes of bright lights and colors is not worth the cost in terms of pain, suffering, pollution, and lost lives. Surely we can find another way to celebrate—a way that is more keeping with our values of compassion and kindness.